Nationals hold edge over Cubs when comparing Games 1-3 starters

by
Patrick McDermott / USA TODAY Sports

"Starting pitching drives the engine," is what Chicago Cubs skipper Joe Maddon told reporters following a loss back in May. "When you're doing that right, everything else has a better opportunity or chance."

It's been a lack of starting pitching that has plagued the defending World Series champions nearly all season. And with the Washington Nationals as the team's opponent in the National League Division Series, the Cubs' pitching could be exposed.

The Nats announced Thursday that Stephen Strasburg will start Game 1, leaving Gio Gonzalez as the probable Game 2 starter. And provided he's healthy, Max Scherzer is likely to toe the rubber for Game 3, according to Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports.

Meanwhile, Maddon announced how his rotation will stack up on Wednesday, with Kyle Hendricks taking the lead.

Here we take a look at the likely starters for both teams, and who has the advantage, for the first three games of the NLDS.

Game 1

Cubs Nationals
Kyle Hendricks Stephen Strasburg

Hendricks began the season as a drastically different pitcher than the one who earned Cy Young attention in 2016. After posting a 2.13 ERA over 190 innings last year, Hendricks began the 2017 campaign with a 4.18 ERA in his first five starts. However, since coming back from a hand injury shortly after the All-Star break, Hendricks has a 2.19 ERA over 13 starts.

His matchup is a difficult one. The Nationals will turn to one of their two aces in Strasburg, who should generate Cy Young consideration of his own this year. The former first overall pick owns the second-best ERA in the NL this year - only behind Scherzer - and the best FIP.

Heading into Thursday's NLDS opener, it's important to remember Hendricks' last postseason outing was Game 7 of the World Series, in which he allowed one earned run over 4 2/3 innings. Hendricks is no pushover, but Strasburg took a significant step forward this season.

Edge: Nationals

Game 2

Cubs Nationals
Jon Lester Gio Gonzalez

The decision to go with Jon Lester over Jose Quintana is a bit of a puzzling one here from Maddon. The 33-year-old Lester has struggled this season, putting up his worst ERA and FIP since his 63-inning rookie campaign back in 2007. Meanwhile, Gonzalez earned his first sub-3.00 ERA season since his debut year with the Nationals in 2012.

It's not all sunshine and roses for Gonzalez though, as the peripheral numbers don't necessarily favor him. The 2.96 ERA is nice, but the 3.93 FIP is a little worrisome. His 81.6 percent strand rate is also alarming. That's the fourth-best left-on-base percentage in the majors, and would indicate some regression is coming.

The lefty-on-lefty matchup could easily come down to which lineup mashes southpaws better. Both teams are essentially identical in this regard, with the Nationals in seventh and the Cubs in eighth by wRC+. It's worth noting the biggest part of Ryan Zimmerman's turnaround has been that he has absolutely owned lefties this year.

Edge: Nationals

Game 3

Nationals Cubs
Max Scherzer Jose Quintana

Scherzer almost definitely nailed down his second consecutive Cy Young with his 2017 campaign. If healthy, there's arguably no pitcher that sets off 'potential perfect game' red alerts more often than Scherzer.

Taking the ball for the first game in Chicago is the team's newest, and best, starter. Since coming over from the Chicago White Sox, Quintana has posted a 3.74 ERA and 3.25 FIP. And the 28-year-old leads the Cubs starting rotation in strikeout rate and FIP since the All-Star break.

If this is the Game 3 matchup, runs could be tough to come by. There's a lot riding on Scherzer's health, but if he's on, the Nationals could make the franchise's first NLCS appearance since moving to Washington.

Edge: Nationals

None of this is to suggest the Nationals are going to sweep the defending World Series champions, but Washington appears to finally have the pitching to make it beyond the divisional round. If the series goes to Game 4, Jake Arrieta seems like a strong candidate to get the better of potential Nationals starter Tanner Roark.

But there are far too many variables beyond Game 3, especially considering both Maddon or Nationals manager Dusty Baker could call on their Game 1 starters on short rest.

The Cubs scored the second-most runs in the NL this year, while Nationals starters were third-best at suppressing runs in the senior circuit. And with the additions of Sean Doolittle, Ryan Madson, and Brandon Kintzler, Baker's crew looks to be a good match to silence the potent Cubs lineup.